/ Food & Drink

Save our food standards: why we still need action

A herd of cows standing in a field, asking you politely to protect food standards in the UK

Encouraging words aren’t enough. The government must put its commitment to upholding food standards into law proactively in the Trade Bill or Agriculture Bill. 

22/07/2020: Bill passes without amendments we wanted to see in place

On Monday evening, the Commons voted to pass the Trade Bill without the amendments to uphold the UK’s high food standards and give MPs a role in scrutinising future trade bills in place.

While this isn’t the outcome we’d have hoped for, we’d like to thank the 25,000+ supporters who wrote to their MP, and the 208,000 who signed our petition.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on proceedings when the Bill goes to the House of Lords in the autumn, and we’ll continue to advocate both inside and outside of Parliament for the changes we believe we need to see.

17/07/2020: We still need action

Since the launch of our Food Standards campaign last month, more than 208,000 people have signed our petition, urging the government to protect food standards when the UK leaves the EU.

Currently, trading partners such as the US, are pushing us to accept lower-standard food such as chlorinated chicken, hormone-injected beef and vegetables riddled with pesticides. This must not be allowed.

The government has had an encouraging response, stating that it is committed to protecting the current high food standards enjoyed in the UK and that it has copied over existing rules from EU law that include food standards.

But this welcome commitment to uphold existing food standards has not been reflected in the Agriculture Bill or Trade Bill. There are also concerns that existing food law including retained law could easily be changed with little scrutiny.

Any risk to food law being nibbled away and weakened in any way would be unacceptable.

MPs have the chance to change this when they vote  on the Trade Bill on Monday. 

The Trade Bill is the chance for MPs and the government to firmly take the UK’s world-leading food standards off the negotiating table and give the reassurance needed by explicitly and clearly enshrining this commitment in primary legislation.

Following, any changes to food standards would then require fuller parliamentary scrutiny before being allowed.

What will the amendments Which? is supporting do for food standards?

Which? is supporting four amendments to the Trade Bill to help uphold our food standards.

These are (click to expand):

New Clause 4

This amendment proposes the Government puts its proposed negotiating objectives before Parliament for debate and approval before it begins new trade negotiations.

This would include the Government providing an impact assessment of food safety. This would be welcome as it would show any potential impact and/or considerations that need to be made for food  safety as part of these negotiations and what the UK is seeking to achieve in a deal.

New Clause 7

This amendment would require all imported food to meet UK standards.

New Clause 11

This amendment would require imported agricultural goods to meet animal health and welfare, environmental, plant health, food safety and other standards which are at least as high as those which apply to UK produced agricultural goods.

Amendment 20

This amendment would ensure that any regulations made under the Trade Bill could only be made if the trade agreement which the regulations would implement enshrines UK standards in legislation and adheres to UK standards of food production and food safety

Consumers want higher standards

Almost all (95%) of consumers think it is important that new trade deals guarantee that existing UK food standards are maintained. 73% of consumers think this is very important.

The consumers we surveyed also had strong opinions on the following:

 

Commitment from supermarkets

The vast majority of consumers we surveyed were against chlorinated chicken going on sale in supermarkets: just 3% of the consumers we surveyed were in favour of it being on sale, and unlabeled.

Supermarkets, including Aldi and Waitrose, have committed to not selling produce that does not meet current standards. While this is welcome, so much food is eaten out of home in cafes, restaurants and canteens that just removing it from supermarket shelves will not be enough for consumers to be able to avoid it.

This is why it shouldn’t be allowed in to the country at all.

Everyone should still be protected by the same standards, wherever they shop for food.

Maintain trust in food

By adding in a commitment to upholding food standards in the Trade Bill, the government will reassure the public that the high food standards we enjoy now will be protected in future trade deals. This could also help earn public trust and support for trade deals.

Help us reach 250,000 signatures by the time the bill gets debated. 

You can also write to your local MP to ask them to support these amendments to the Trade Bill in Monday’s vote.

How else will leaving the EU affect me?

The trade deals being negotiated between the UK and other countries will affect what goods and services you will be able to buy, their quality, their cost, what protections you have if something goes wrong, and more.  

Find out more about trade deals and our future

Comments

I fully support the efforts of Which? to maintain present food standards, but there are opportunities to do more to protect people and the environment.

> We need ingredients shown on all food and not just packaged products. For example it is not currently necessary to show the ingredients of loose goods sold by in bakers’ and other shops, and counters in supermarkets. This is particularly important for those with allergies and intolerances.

> Mandatory display of food hygiene ratings on the premises has been a requirement in Wales for years, yet it has still to be rolled out across the rest of the UK.

> Sue mentions vegetables and pesticides being a concern if foods produced to a lower standard are imported, but our own standards could be improved for the benefit of consumers and wildlife.

Frances Bell says:
17 July 2020

I have a very good sense of taste, which is annoying to the extent that I can’t bear supermarket tomatoes, especially organic ones. I’m told it’s quite legal to use this foul-tasting spray on organic food, and 99% of people can’t taste it. It’s time we went back to smaller and more carefully maintained greenhouses/fields of mass production

We differ in what we can smell and taste. It’s well known that some people can smell cyanide and others not, and there is a genetic reason for this. I am strongly affected by the smell of sulphur dioxide/sulphites, which make many white wines undrinkable and dried apricots very unpleasant.

Organic farmers cannot use synthetic chemicals but can use others that occur naturally. The customer is not told which chemicals are used in ordinary or organic farming. The best solution might be to grow your own tomatoes, which can be done without a greenhouse. They will taste better if they are ripened before picking. Most supermarket tomatoes are picked before they are ripe and artificially ripened, so can be rather tasteless.

It seems to be hit and miss with supermarket salad produce. Our Sainsbury’s delivery on Tuesday included some British tomatoes that smelled and tasted very good. The skins were a bit thick but otherwise they were excellent. Likewise some celery [grown in the Fens and still showing the black soil near the root] which had that lovely old-fashioned taste.

We weren’t so pleased with some strawberries, however, which were overlarge and lacked the traditional English strawberry smell and taste. They were very edible, though, and not wasted.

I am often disappointed by the lack of a “traditional” strawberry flavour. It may be the varieties grown commercially for yield rather than taste, or because they are grown by hydroponics rather than in soil.

They taste better grown in the garden, warmed by the sun. That is, if you can get to them before the slugs and birds.

I think some of the nicest flavour comes from alpine strawberries. I’ve grown a batch of plants from seed this year and look forward to seeing a bit of a crop next year. Their problem is they are so small; a lot of picking is involved.

I thoroughly agree with ALL ingredients shown on all food products including hidden ingredients.

Although the order of an ingredient list is a guide to contents with main ingredients first, it is often misleading so I would like to see the percentage of ingredients also shown. Particularly important for those controlling their diets is added sugar.

There is currently no requirement to declare enzymes used as ‘processing aids’ in manufacture of foods. I believe that they should be declared.

What matters for diabetics etc. is total sugar rather than added sugar. I knew a chap who drank unsweetened fruit juice throughout the day and I was not surprised when he announced he had developed type 2 diabetes. I would like to see the amounts of all ingredients in foods listed but I don’t think the manufacturers would be keen to do this.

Fructose is preferable to refined sugar but diabetics have to be sensible and do their own research. A glass of orange juice for breakfast was one of the first things my other half gave up when he was diagnosed.

We aim for not more than 4% sugars in anything with total carbs also taken into consideration. An apple contains roughly 14 grams of carbs with about 10 grams of sugar, more than twice our aim, but rather more healthy than eating 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar.

Not many people would eat several oranges or apples so I suggest that they are a better alternative to drinking glasses of fruit juice. The presence of complex carbohydrates in fruit helps slow metabolism, which is important for diabetics and worthwhile for the rest of us.

Melanie Harrison says:
19 July 2020

I absolutely agree Frances. There is so much more to contemplate in producing good quality foods ,packaging and environmental issues ,for sure !

Anyone reading the intro might wonder what the new clauses and amendments are. It is not obvious you need to click on them to find out.

It is questionable whether the UK food standards are acceptably high in the first place. The Red Tractor scheme for example seems to set very low standards.

As we appear not to properly enforce our standards (2 Sisters, horsemeat, food outlet hygiene, for example) I’d suggest we need to put our own house in order and ensure the standards we aspire to are actually achieved.

There are plenty of examples of our failings in the food industry malcolm.

As long as there are cost savings to be made by cutting corners there is a danger of standards declining and Alfa has given examples of problem areas below. The government has moved towards trusting larger companies to police their food standards under their Regulating our Future initiative.

This reminds me of the way that companies are working with National Trading Standards and with a selected local TS office under a Primary Authority agreement. None of this has helped with stopping the sale of products with the wrong plug.

I am getting rather tired of this obsession with US chicken. Millions of Brits visit the US every year, do any of them check where their TGIF, KFC or McD’s chicken and steak has originated?

There is already no shortage of cheap rubber supermarket chicken, where does that come from?

We already have Thai chicken:
https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2019/11/salmonella-issues-in-poultry-from-thailand-could-continue-eu/
http://www.poultrynews.co.uk/business-politics/why-are-schools-buying-chicken-dinners-from-thailand.html

How about Salmonella:
https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2020/07/salmonella-outbreak-linked-to-british-eggs/

Prawns are big business. Have a read of this and the dangerous pesticides they have to use as the prawn fields become diseased :
https://theecologist.org/2011/sep/30/europes-prawn-obsession-devastating-local-communities-bangladesh

Is there a problem with Scottish salmon farming? Farmed salmon are fed on processed feed and treated with medicines to ward off disease and infestations such as sea lice, which can breed among the fish in the pens. The pens keep the fish enclosed but they allow parasites to get in and let thousands of tonnes of waste into the surrounding water.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-48266480

Fish farming is becoming the norm in many countries giving small farmers a living. But at what cost to the environment? And do we really want to eat fish that is raised in polluted rivers where EVERYTHING including raw sewerage ends up? I haven’t heard Which? decrying tilapia, basa, or swai.

What about the environmental damage of Spanish farming, and the exploitation and unsanitary living conditions of Spanish workers who supply much of our fruit and veg:
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/may/01/no-food-water-masks-or-gloves-migrant-farm-workers-in-spain-at-crisis-point
https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/aware-slaves-greenhouses-191015093821140.html

Should we be worrying about our food when the workers are infected with COVID-19?
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/12/coronavirus-200-farm-workers-quarantined-herefordshire-outbreak
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-53423903

GM crops might be banned, but there has been no shortage of the manipulation of our food bred for sales and taste which is why we have tasteless tomatoes and seedless grapes. This article in The Guardian sums up our eating habits quite well:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/16/snack-attacks-the-toxic-truth-about-the-way-we-eat

Where has Which? been all this time? I think we have a lot more to worry about than chlorinated chicken from the US.

A good post, Alfa. Obsession, blinkered, partisan could be used to describe a number of campaign strategies.

As far as I know, giving chicken a chlorine wash is not hazardous to the consumer. Is it? The problem is what it is said to counteract – poor conditions in which they are reared. If so then investigate and report on those poor conditions and upon how widespread they are, so we can decide if they impact on the consumer and how bad they are for the birds.

The huge demand for meat cannot be satisfied only by birds being allowed to roam freely in green pastures. Unfortunately some form of intensive rearing is necessary, unless we abandon chicken to all but the better off. Our own “Red Tractor” scheme is hardly generous in considering the chickens’ lifestyle and welfare. I think we should concentrate on putting our own house in order particularly when we are largely self sufficient in chicken.

Cut down on the number of UK fast food chains and that is entirely achievable Malcolm. Most use imported chicken anyway. There are currently 800 mega-farms in the U.K so there should be enough to become self sufficient. Fast food chains with their over generous portions are also adding to the obesity epidemic

Thanks malcolm, my thoughts exactly.

I expect most of us can think of fields that never seem to be used for anything.

Some of these will be farmers paid not to farm.

But many of them will be owned by property developers sitting on them until they can get planning permission for new housing estates. They will have been bought cheap when their only use would have been agricultural and I would suggest this practice should be made illegal and the land returned to farming. With careful planning, agricultural land around towns and villages could sustain a lot of local demand with excess sent to the cities. Greenhouses, solar energy, wind power and storage batteries could reduce our reliance on Spain and the unnecessary costs of transportation.

I do not think mega-farms are a good thing, firstly for the welfare of the animals but also the diseases and health problems associated with intensive rearing. We do not want to get to the situation where all our food groups are in the hands of only a few.

I found this cattle mega farm in Kent that appears on a few reports:
Put this into google maps:
51.394630, 0.875221
The cows are surrounded by greenery but get none.

Disinfection of chicken carcasses (chlorine treatment etc.) is not just done as mitigation of poor animal husbandry. Even birds that are not intensively farmed can carry very high numbers of bacteria in their bowels and may show no symptoms of disease. When we were discussing campylobacter in chicken I learned that organic chicken reared under non-intensive conditions could carry more bacteria simply because the birds live longer, allowing more opportunity for pathogenic bacteria to colonise their bowels.

During processing of chicken carcasses, faecal matter from these birds is spread to birds that were not contaminated. Disinfection is used in the US and in some countries (but not in Europe) to reduce the extent of contamination. If lumps of faecal matter remain after washing, the disinfectant will not penetrate them.

Here is a recent briefing paper from the Food Research Collaboration that I find interesting: https://foodresearch.org.uk/download/14720/

It identifies the disinfectants used in chicken processing in the US as not just chlorinated water but also with five other chemical disinfectants (acidified sodium chlorite, peroxyacetic acid, cetylpyridium chloride, lactic acid, and trisodium phosphate). (Peroxyacetic acid is another name for peracetic acid, which has been mentioned earlier.)

“Recently, strong evidence emerged indicating that chlorine washing is not an effective disinfectant. Professor Keevil and colleagues at Southampton University published an important paper in spring 2018 showing, with leaf vegetables, that chlorine washing does not eliminate the bacteria that cause food poisoning. Chlorine washing, they found, merely blocks the standard test method by which the presence of such bacteria should be revealed. So the bacteria remain present on the food, and able to cause serious types of food poisoning. This outcome can be not just very unpleasant but even fatal.”

Animal husbandry could be improved but so could the chicken processing plants.

Chlorine washed salad stuff is common in the UK and the EU apparently. I want to see campaigns like this supported with all the relevant information.
”However, regardless of this, there are concerns that treating chicken with chlorine-washes, or any other substances, at the end of the production process is a way of covering up poorer hygiene standards. Instead, we believe that the UK should be maintaining the high standards and levels of checks we currently have throughout the farming and production process to minimise bacterial contamination.

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/05/which-disagrees-that-fears-around-chlorinated-chicken-are-unfounded/ – Which?

And this is what should be the focus of attention. Just as it should be in the UK. Unfortunately we appear lacking in this.

”The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around one in six Americans (around 48 million people) suffer from food-borne diseases every year. The equivalent figure in Britain is around one in 60 (one million cases a year according to the Food Standards Agency’s estimate).

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/05/which-disagrees-that-fears-around-chlorinated-chicken-are-unfounded/ – Which?

It seems these are old estimates (10 years or so) but, much more important, the methodology on which the data is based is different, so they are not comparable. This should be made clear when presenting a case.

10 years on we should be looking at current data that is collected in the same way. It may well be that we suffer fewer problems than the US, or it may not be. We need reliable information.

Apparently we have more of a problem with salmonella than the US. I understand chlorine-washed chicken in the US has around 2% whereas in the UK and EU it runs at around 15-20%.

I do not want to see us importing any more food than we must. I want to see home produced and processed food. We should be quite capable of that with chicken as we are already 75% self sufficient. At least we can more easily access the farmers and processors to monitor standards, if only we had the proper resources.

Here is another view on the US UK debate https://briefingsforbritain.co.uk/fact-checking-the-bbc-fact-checkers/

The whole issue seems not at all straightforward. As in many campaigns you can pick and choose between “facts” and “statistics” and their interpretation to best suit your case. It would be useful if someone unbiased and with some knowledge could put together as balanced a summary as possible, avoiding emotive wording. It probably would not make an entertaining read but might better inform us in reaching a conclusion.

When you are bombarded with a multitude of figures and statistics from different sources, albeit they may be from professional people, a debate starts to lose its purpose and integrity as you are unable to see the forest for the trees.

When comparing US and UK/EU percentages and numbers of salmonella and campylobacter outbreaks, until you are certain they are based on pre chlorinated or post chlorinated statistics they are unlikely to give an accurate assessment of the real figures.

Also, are the US figures based solely on the 90% of non-chlorinated chickens or both 90% + 10% chlorinated combined? We are led to believe there are only 2% of salmonella and/or campylobacter outbreaks in the US in comparison with the EU/UK numbers which are much higher at about 15% – 20%. The true percentages are going to be quite different given there are probably more people that develop the symptoms but don’t report it.

I don’t think we will ever receive the exact numbers of people infected on either side, but the final decision to proceed with any trade deal with the US will depend upon the skill and the accomplishment of the negotiators acting for the two countries and the input of the regulators.

Romain says:
19 July 2020

I try to finish my first mail but problem juste I did not come in tell your peoples to read “SWALLOW THIS” by Joanna Blythman FEWWWWW!!!!!! and it is right as a ex-Head chef seen it, done it, eat it!!!!!!!
Beware of the true!!!!!!!!

William Beattie says:
19 July 2020

Physiological needs (Food & Water ) are the basic physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail. Physiological needs should therefor be met first and that means supporting agriculture at a local level, not relying on substandard foreign foods.

That is my main concern. I don’t think there is any particular danger from eating chicken meat that has been processed the American way using chemical disinfection but it’s a short cut on more careful husbandry that obviously costs more to perform so to that extent it could undermine UK agriculture which has higher standards.

As I have said before, I don’t expect much American chicken to end up on our domestic dining tables if a trade agreement allows it to be imported, but it would almost certainly become a bulk commodity import and be used in catering establishments and commercially from school dinners, staff canteens, hospitals and care homes to restaurants, ready meals, manufactured sandwiches, and other forms of processed food. Since that is possibly the biggest slice of the market in the UK it would be ripe for exploitation by the US food industry.

I agree that we should ensure that all UK production should be brought up to the best standard, but the fact that it might still fall short here and there should not be used as an excuse to import meat that does not fully meet the UK requirements. I also agree that we should aim to raise home-reared volumes so the UK becomes 100% self-sufficient in poultry production.

If 75% of the UK market is supplied with home-produced chicken already I presume that is because it is competitively priced. If so, why is it assumed that we will be flooded with US imports? We import from Poland and Thailand already; would they be more expensive than the US?

I’d look forward to our chicken magnates producing more still, and to our food inspection services ensuring they stick to our standards.

However, meat in the EU and UK is protected from imports in two ways, high tariffs of up to 50% and by food standards. The current UK proposal is a dual tariffs system, a high tariff on food of lower standard, and a less high one on compliant food. This is not only, presumably, to protect our food standards but our home farming industry that is essential to our future.

I would want to see the standards in the UK set to protect our consumers from anything that could be a threat to our health. We need to be objective about this. We should also consider how much animal conditions matter to us and exactly how we expect to ensure minimum standards we require are actually complied with outside the UK. If we buy from EU states we rely on their supervision, but as we see in the UK this is not foolproof.

I also accept that we need to protect home production but hopefully this will be sensibly administered and not used to enrich producers, the danger with indiscriminate support.

Michael D Loveless says:
20 July 2020

What happened to CHOICE? If the USA or anywhere else were allowed to import chocolate covered rat faeces would I have to buy it? Standards in cafes and restaurants could still be maintained and rogue operators would still operate regardless.

Hi Michael, I think a major concern here is that we can only exercise our supreme weapon of customer choice if we have access to the information needed to allow us to make informed choices.

In this topic, this comes down to food labelling and to the extent or otherwise of the information that must be provided there.

As an example, I have a colleague who is allergic to certain types of rapeseed oil. Under current UK food labelling regimes, he is able to determine which products contain rapeseed oil and then avoid them.

This recent page on the Which? website has a video explaining animal welfare standards operating in the UK: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/07/red-tractor-rspca-assured-and-organic-meat-whats-the-difference/

As we have seen before, Red Tractor is hardly anything to celebrate.

According to this website our standards for animal welfare are generally better than those in the US: https://api.worldanimalprotection.org

There is no need to eat meat and in the past five or six years I have not missed eating chicken.

I don’t see that as a reason to justify low standards here.

Many will continue to eat meat and use animal products like cheese, milk and eggs, so paying attention to standards of animal welfare is important.

I’m not trying to justify poor standards, Malcolm, and I want to see improvements.

As I’ve said before, I want us to be self-sufficient in our food supply as far as possible. I wonder if those involved in negotiating trade deals know much about animal welfare.

You may have already spotted Sue’s opt-ed in today’s Times Redbox – if not, have a read here: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/caring-about-food-standards-is-not-just-for-do-gooders-and-celebrity-chefs-029zdl78r

Unfortunately I can only see the first two paragraphs without, seemingly, subscribing (or taking a month’s free trial). Perhaps Which? could reproduce it somewhere else?